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Bahbah: Massacre of Jews in Pittsburgh Could Lead to American-Jewish Breakup with Netanyahu

posted on: Oct 31, 2018

Bahbah: Massacre of Jews in Pittsburgh Could Lead to American-Jewish Breakup with Netanyahu

By: Bishara Bahbah/Arab America Featured Columnist

Two people, besides the person who pulled the trigger, are the most to blame for the outrageous and despicable deadly massacre on Jewish worshipers in a Pittsburgh synagogue. The two people to blame are the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. president, Donald Trump.

The attack deemed as the bloodiest act of anti-Semitism in American history killed 11 worshippers aged 59 to 97 and injured six others, four of whom are police officers.  The massacre took place on Saturday, October 27, at the hands of a madman, Robert Bowers, who entered the Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue, as he was yelling “All Jews must die.”

This attack is bound to have serious consequences on American-Jewish ties with the intolerant and right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu who, very much like US President Donald Trump, have been fanning the flames of hatred toward others.  As David Rothkopf of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz wrote on October 28, “Trump didn’t pull the trigger on Jews in Pittsburgh, but he certainly prepped the shooter.” Linking the behavior of Trump to Netanyahu, Rothkopf added:

“Because it is clear one of the reasons that Trump and Netanyahu have bonded is that both have ridden waves of hatred to political success, both have shamelessly vilified “the other” within their societies, both have sought to institutionalize the divisions their supporters seek, and both have capitalized on tensions at their borders even as they have inflamed them.”

Bahbah: Massacre of Jews in Pittsburgh Could Lead to American-Jewish Breakup with Netanyahu

President Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem on May 23, 2017. (Photo: U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv/Flickr/cc)

Even before he was elected president, Trump called for the barring of refugees from the United States on the basis of their religion – Islam.  Trump has unabashedly encouraged far-right racist movements.  When white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, among them neo-Nazis who chanted “Jews will not replace us,” Trump called them “fine people.”

Trump demanded the building of a wall between the United States and Mexico to stop Latin American immigrants from entering the United States.  He even had the chutzpah to ask Mexico to pay for the wall even after calling Mexicans “rapists.”

Trump and Netanyahu, actively supported ethnic-nationalist leaders and regimes in Eastern Europe. Trump did so in support of their anti-immigrant policies and, Netanyahu did so despite their anti-Semitic sympathies including Hungary’s blatant attacks on the American-Jewish philanthropist, George Soros.

Bahbah: Massacre of Jews in Pittsburgh Could Lead to American-Jewish Breakup with Netanyahu

American Jews feel targeted in the United States. These feelings are supported by facts.  In its annual audit of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported a 57 percent rise in incidents in 2017 over the previous year. That included everything from bomb threats and assaults, to vandalism, and desecration of cemeteries.  According to the ADL, that is the largest year-on-year increase in over four decades.  FBI statistics, adjusted to population size, also reveal that Jews are more likely to be the target of hate crimes than any other minority in the United States. I should add that hate crimes against Arabs and Muslims in the United States also soared during the same period.

Even though one might argue that Trump did not call directly for any attacks against his political opponents, his legacy will be marred by his inflammatory racist rhetoric. The Republican Party, unfortunately, has abstained and/or refused to repudiate their leader’s statements.

As for Netanyahu, once word of the massacre reached him, he dispatched the Israeli minister of Diaspora Affairs to Pittsburgh.  An emissary from a right-wing government is no consolation to American Jews.  Coming from a government whose chief rabbi refused to call the Pittsburgh massacre site a “synagogue” because the worshippers are Conservative Jews and not Orthodox Jews, is a slap in the face.  Already American-Jewish ties with Israel’s right-wing government have been tense as Israel refuses to recognize non-Orthodox Jewish congregations.  The majority of Diaspora Jews – the majority of whom live in the United States – belong to the Liberal and Conservative branches of Judaism.

The murderer of American Jews in Pittsburgh made clear on social media that he identifies the synagogue as a supporter of HIAS, a nonprofit refugee-relief organization, whose motto is: “Welcome the stranger. Protect the refugee.”   HIAS has aided refugees for 137 years.  They aided Jewish refugees that came to the United States from the former Soviet Union and, most recently, stood front and center in the US campaign for refugees fleeing from the civil war in Syria.  In Israel, HIAS has been a vocal critic of the Netanyahu government’s policies toward African refugees.

To many, Netanyahu would not jeopardize his relationship with Trump over the well-being of American Jews. In fact, Netanyahu has consistently supported Trump and is forever thankful for Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

At this juncture in American-Jewish relations with Israel, American-Jewish values do not match up with those of Israel’s right-wing government.  More and more American Jews such as Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), J Street and increasingly mainstream American-Jewish organizations are critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and are supportive of a two-state solution.

It remains to be seen whether this tragedy, given Netanyahu’s close ties with Trump, will cause a major rift between American Jews and an Israel under the grip of a right-wing government that does not even recognize most American Jews as Jews because they belong to the non-Orthodox branch of Judaism.


Prof. Bishara Bahbah was editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem based “Al-Fajr” newspaper between 1983-84. He was a member of the Palestinian delegation to the Peace Talks on Arms Control and Regional Security.  He taught at Harvard and was the associate director of its Kennedy School’s Institute for Social and Economic Policy in the Middle East.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab America.